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Death of the Electronic Spreadsheet!

There are people saying that the electronic spreadsheet is dead meat. This article in Government Technology titled XBRL Ends Spreadsheet Hell points out some of the shortcomings of the electronic spreadsheet. In his book Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business, David Siegel says (page 176) "The days of general-purpose word processors and spreadsheets are over."  He sees the replacement as being semantic information.  Business Intelligence (BI) vendors say that the arbitrary rows and numbers of electronic spreadsheets will be replaced by BI tools which use real world names and terms (i.e. semantic information).  Here is a tutorial for one BI application which walks you through how this works.

These is plenty of information on how to avoid what many people call "spreadsheet hell", like this one.  The love/hate relationship we all seem to have with spreadsheets, what seems to be a necessary evil, is fairly well documented.

Me, I started my accounting career in 1982 with the IBM PC and VisiCalc. Remember that! (Here is a screen shot from Wikipedia.org)

I was an auditor at what was then called Price Waterhouse.  I used paper spreadsheets to create things like audit schedules.  It took some doing, but we got the managers and partners to start letting us use these new fangled electronic spreadsheets.

But it was not long before I started seeing the limitations of spreadsheets and started to make use of database applications.  I started with a database called RBASE.  Eventually I moved to Microsoft Access, which I still use today for all sorts of things.  Basically, I use spreadsheets, databases, and XML/XBRL to achieve the things I need to achieve.

Frankly, I personally don't see the general purpose spreadsheet totally going away.  There will always be a need for general purpose spreadsheets.  However, I do believe that somewhere between 2% and 20% of all spreadsheets could and should easily be replaced by databases and other sorts of applications.  As many as 80% of spreadsheets could be replaced if you worked at it just a little, most likely.

One of the thing which I see replacing spreadsheets are more specific purpose applications.  You can think of these as "templates".  They may even look like spreadsheets.  But, you cannot add anything you want to the spreadsheet looking thing, you have to follow the data model.  These specific purpose applications will be in a global standard data format, such as XBRL or maybe RDF/OWL.  Different applications created by various software vendors will exchange these little specific purpose templates, serving specific needs.  Importing and exporting information from one business system or process to another will be easy.  This importing and exporting will be like little data exchange contracts between users.

This video helps see why the more spreadsheets you can make go away, the better you will be able to use the business information you work with (from YouTube, Chet Phillips):

Can you make all your spreadsheets go away?  Probably not.  Experiment with the low hanging fruit, the 2% to 20% which are pretty much a no brainer.

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